Let’s start with the first pillar—the technical areas that are necessary for a player to become a successful US Youth Soccer ODP player:
1) Quality of the first touch – Does the statement “The first touch is everything” mean anything to you? A player needs to have the technical ability to receive any type of service (pass) from their teammates and even the opposition for that matter, and be able to handle it cleanly. The first touch can either take you out of a pressure situation or it puts you back into pressure from an opponent or space. One type of two-touch soccer that is not conducive to what people call “the beautiful game” is when the receiving player’s second touch is the tackle to win the ball back after a poor first touch. Two Men’s National Team players who have a flawless first touch are Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, former US Youth Soccer ODP players. They always look and feel comfortable with the ball at their feet.
2) The ability to strike a ball cleanly – It does not matter what surface of the foot we are talking about-instep or inside of the foot; the player needs to be able to put the proper pace on the pass.
– Can they drive a ball over various distances to the intended target (both diagonal and down the line passes)?
– Can they bend the ball into the open space in front of a teammate or around defenders to the feet of their teammate?
– Can they execute a proper chip pass or lofted pass and can they play the ball with both feet?
A good example of this technical ability is when you see a defender play a long ball forward in order to get his team out of a pressure situation – if that defender just played a 40 or 50 yd rope to his teammates’ feet and he accomplishes this on a consistent basis, then this player has some talent and it is not an attempt to play “kick ball”, “long ball” or “direct soccer”. I have not worked with any defenders yet, who honestly do not feel that they can make that pass. The player who can hit this type of ball from the back or from one flank to another flank does have the ability to strike a ball cleanly.
3) The ability to dribble to penetrate and to maintain possession – The player should be comfortable dribbling with all four surfaces of the foot, the sole, inside of the foot, instep and the outside of the foot. The player has to be comfortable in their ability to move at speed with the ball and to avoid challenges from opponents while still maintaining control/possession of the ball. Players at this level have some tactical understanding of when to hold the ball up/shield and wait for supporting players to combine with. They also have some tactical understanding of when to take a player(s) on in an attempt to beat the opposition. A player can understand tactically when and where during a match to execute this skill, but without the technical abilities of knowing how to make these tactical decisions actually work creates many frustrating moments on the soccer field for the player. As the competitive level of matches increases for players, they need to understand that turnovers because of a poor or a needless dribbling run puts their team at a defensive disadvantage from which many goals are scored.
4) The ability to head the ball in attack and defense – Can the player effectively clear an incoming high ball with their head when defending, can the player effectively pass and shoot with their head when on attack.
There are many things that can go wrong to affect the quality of a good header:
– mistimed jump
– poor assessment of the flight of the incoming ball
– closing of the eyes
– mistimed thrusting of the head towards the ball
All of these situations will affect how the player strikes the ball with their head and how successful the header will become.
Heading is a skill that often receives less than its normal share of appropriate training time during practice sessions. But think about the number of goals that are scored off of restart situations from headers or the number of assists that come from passes from headers, especially from flick headers. By possessing the skill to handle any type of heading situation, while playing on both sides of the ball (attack or defense), allows players to increase their chances of moving up the elite player development ladder.
5) The ability to finish with their first touch – Of the five technical qualities mentioned, this may be the most difficult skill to master. I am not talking about composure on the ball, which also plays a big part of quality finishing; I am talking about the player’s technical ability to strike on goal with their first touch. The player has to possess the ability to solve problems technically under intense pressure when receiving the ball close to their opponent’s goal. There are many variables a player encounters in this situation, such as the position of the goalkeeper, the flight and pace of the pass they are about to receive, the position of defending players, etc., which forces the player to choose a technique to use to strike the ball at almost “warp speed”.
The biggest problem for young players is that many believe scoring goals is all about striking the ball with power. I am going to show my age here by quoting a line from the old FA Instructional films that were made after England won the World Cup in 1966, whenever a player missed a goal scoring opportunity by going for power instead of accuracy, the announcer would say “He went for power when clinical accuracy would have done him better.” Landon Donovan is by far the best pure clinical finisher I have ever had the pleasure to work with at any playing level. When you watch him closely, his decision making as to what surface to strike the ball with, what pace to put on his finishing attempt and the placement of his this attempt are exceptional. Maybe this is why he holds the records for scoring goals with the US Men’s National Teams at both the youth and senior levels. Another interesting fact is that something like 70% of all goals scored are scored from the player’s first touch—more reason for the player to become comfortable with dealing with goal scoring opportunities with their first touch.